French Whisky Finds Its Footing

Imagine a country that has everything necessary for making whisky: robust agriculture, pure water, and centuries of distilling know-how—plus, its citizens love to drink the stuff. You probably aren’t thinking of France. Yet from the jagged rocky shores of Brittany to the steep slopes of the Alps, from verdant Alsace-Lorraine to the patchwork fields and vineyards of Cognac, whisky is flowing throughout the Gallic nation.

The French have long been the world leaders in per-capita scotch consumption, gulping down 178 million bottles in 2017, but the country’s homegrown whisky industry emerged in the 1980s, and has taken off only in the last decade. Similar to craft producers in the U.S., many French whisky distillers are small businesses, and most of what they make is consumed locally. But a handful of French whiskies is reaching the U.S. and, with production doubling every year, that small cadre is likely to grow.

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With that growth comes a question: what makes a whisky French? France recognizes and abides by the European Union’s definition of whisky—made from grain and aged at least 3 years in wood—but has not yet formalized specifically French terms, although that is about to change thanks to the efforts of Philippe Jugé, managing director of the Fédération du Whisky de France. An event organizer and former whisky retailer, for the last two years he has led the charge among French distillers to define French whisky. The working definition—which at press time was slated for potential implementation in January 2019—requires French whisky to be fermented, distilled, matured in wood for at least 3 years, and bottled, all in France. In future years, the Fédération aims to implement a requirement for in-country malting, as well as—further down the line—a rule that whisky makers use only French wine and spirits casks for maturation.

A Matter of Terroir

If there is one uniting philosophy across French food and drink culture, it is terroir. A term most commonly used in association with viticulture, terroir refers to the environmental factors—especially soil and climate—that influence the way wine tastes. Terroir is the reason that chardonnay from Chablis tastes so different from chardonnay made in the Côte de Beaune, less than 100 miles away.
Simply put, terroir is when you can taste place in the glass, and France’s whisky makers are putting that philosophy to work in their fermenters, stills, and casks. “When you travel in France, you drive an hour, two hours, and then you have a different climate, different soil, a different level of humidity—all these facts affect the quality of the wine,” says Charles Daucourt, a fourth-generation cognac maker and co-founder of Bastille 1789 whisky. “[It’s the] same thing with French whisky.” Bastille—which has both a blend and a single malt—is distilled in the Cognac region by Daucourt and two of his uncles and aged in sauternes, red burgundy, cognac, and sherry casks. The company, Maison Daucourt, also makes DUC whisky.

allison parc of brenne whisky holding a glass of whisky

American Allison Parc went on the hunt for a whisky that expresses terroir, and ended up creating Brenne, a single malt made in France’s Cognac region.

Another Cognac-area single malt, Brenne, is the brainchild of an American who went on the hunt for a whisky that expresses terroir. “France is the originator of terroir,” says founder Allison Parc. “Using the earth’s influence with a winemaker’s artistry gives a wine a sense of place, and that’s what I wanted in a whisky.” Brenne is made with organic barley grown in Cognac’s chalky soil, fermented using a proprietary cognac yeast, and distilled in charentais stills, which are typically used for making cognac. The whisky matures in both freshly dumped cognac casks and new casks made from local Limousin oak. Though it shares flavor similarities with Bastille and a similarly made single malt from Cognac, Vicomte, Brenne offers a distinct floral, bubble gum sweetness that has few parallels in other whiskies.

Taste a few other French single malts and the breadth of France’s whisky terroir becomes ever more apparent. G. Rozelieures, made from barley grown in volcanic soil in the gently sloping foothills of the Vosges Mountains and surrounded by mirabelle plum trees, has a sweet but structured palate, deftly buttressed with a small amount of peat. Armorik, from Warenghem Distillery in Brittany—the country’s northwest corner—which has a humid, temperate climate, shows flavors of cereal and flowers, while Kornog from neighboring Glann ar Mor Distillery is a rugged, sinewy, peated whisky shot through with the briny aromas of the windswept seashore where it ages.

Domaine des Hautes Glaces, a petite distillery perched in the Alps, was founded in 2008 specifically to explore terroir in whisky. Along with several other farmers, founder Frédéric Révol grows organic barley, rye, spelt, and oats in defined parcels, called climats. “I try to explore a relationship between the climate and the taste of the whisky,” Révol explains. “We are trying to reconnect whisky to natural things—soils, climates, [harvest] years, and varieties [of grain].” Révol malts the grain on-site, distilling it in a tiny wood-fired still that yields a single cask from each batch, and ages the spirit in French wine or spirits barrels, as well as virgin French oak.

To Révol, creating uniquely French whisky is less about the country and more about his specific corner of it—the terroir of his location. “This is about believing in the sense of place,” he says, calling the exploration of terroir a kind of “hope about diversity of whisky” in a globalized society. “Today you can make whisky everywhere in the world, but if you make whisky in the same way everywhere in the world, there is something very sad [about that].”

Daucourt sees terroir as a defining characteristic of France’s whisky. “Just like the different terroirs and taste profiles that you find in French wine regions, you will find the same in the French whisky map,” he says. “That is the main difference between French whisky and the rest of the world’s whisky.”

An alpine field with a tractor and snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Domaine des Hautes Glaces, a petite distillery perched in the Alps, aims to demonstrate the terroir of whisky by distilling grains grown on separate parcels of land called “climats.”

Deep Distilling Roots

In some ways, it’s incredible that it has taken so long for France to emerge as a whisky-making nation. French distillers have made fruit-based spirits like cognac, armagnac, calvados, and eau de vie for centuries—as long as the Scots and Irish have been distilling grains. And the country grows plenty of grain itself, generating 30 percent of the world’s malt, a capacity of around 1.5 million tons a year.

But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the first French distillery began to make whisky. Founded in 1900, Warenghem Distillery in Brittany originally produced herbal and fruit liqueurs, releasing its first blended whisky in 1987, and its first single malt, called Armorik, in 1998. For years, the distillery stood alone as the sole whisky maker in France, applying its decades of production experience and two large pot stills to making barley and wheat whiskies.

“The idea at the beginning was really not to copy, but to do like the Scottish, but in Brittany,” says master distiller Erwan Lefebvre. “Once we knew how to make whisky, we Breton-ized it a bit more.” Warenghem typically ages its spirit in bourbon and sherry casks, but has experimented with maturation in its quest for local flavor. It contracted with the region’s sole cooper to make casks of Breton oak, and is also aging some of its whisky in casks that formerly held chouchen, a local mead. While the bulk of the distillery’s whisky has gone toward supermarket blends in the past, it is now producing more Armorik single malt, and aging it longer than previously.

Warenghem is among a half-dozen distilleries in Brittany, a hotbed of whisky making in France and one of two regions with a geographical indication for whisky (the other is Alsace; see France’s Whisky GIs). Fiercely proud of the region’s Celtic roots, Breton distillers use a variety of grains and cask types, maturing the whisky in a maritime environment that’s a few degrees warmer than Scotland.

jean donnay of glann ar mor distillery takes notes by the pot still

Jean Donnay uses traditional methods to make whisky, such as direct-fired stills. (Photo by Julien Faure)

Located out on a far-flung spit of rocky coastline, Glann ar Mor Distillery’s motto is “French whisky with a Celtic heart.” Ex-advertising executive turned independent bottler Jean Donnay opened the distillery in 2005, though his first distillate was a tiny batch of single malt made in 1999 in the middle of a North Atlantic gale that was battering Brittany. “I wanted to start distilling before the turn of the century,” he explains nonchalantly. Nowadays, Glann ar Mor is a pocket-sized distillery in part of the old farmhouse Donnay and his wife Martine call home. With small-scale wooden washbacks, patinated direct-fire stills, and a pair of worm tubs overlooking the 20-foot tides that roll in and out just a stone’s throw away, the distillery appears to be straight out of the 19th century. Glann ar Mor’s core bottling is Kornog Roc’h Hir, a peated single malt named for a local beach.

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Other whisky producers began cropping up across France in the late 1990s and early 2000s: Domaine Mavela in Corsica; Distillerie des Menhirs in Brittany; G. Rozelieures in Lorraine; Meyer, Hepp, and Castor in Alsace; and others. Many of these whisky-making endeavors grew out of existing distilling or brewing businesses. Today, France has around 60 active distilleries, with over a dozen more in the construction or planning stages. Jugé notes three reasons for the current momentum: a strong demand for whisky, the desire of small distillers to create independent businesses, and the locavore movement. “People want to eat and drink products that come from their local area,” he says. “They know if there is a whisky producer not that far away from them, it’s more sustainable.”

Sabine Grallet Dupic, the fifth-generation co-owner of G. Rozelieures Distillery, has noticed that trend as well. “People today want to know what they’re tasting,” she says. “It’s important to know what they’re drinking, to know the story.” Located in the rolling hills of Lorraine, G. Rozelieures has produced mirabelle, a traditional plum eau de vie, from fruit grown on the Grallet family land since the 19th century. Simultaneously, the family has farmed grain, including barley. So when Sabine’s father Hubert Grallet and husband Christophe Dupic started making whisky in the early 2000s, everything they needed was at hand.

“It’s our strength to have every stage of the production [in-house],” Grallet Dupic says. “And it’s very important to us to master every stage, to make whisky with high quality.” G. Rozelieures distills using only grain grown on its farm, and recently opened its own malting facility so that every element of whisky making—literally from seed to bottle—is self-contained.

g rozelieures distillery in a field of grain in France's Lorraine region

Opened by the fourth and fifth generations of a family that distills plum eau de vie, G. Rozelieures also makes whisky from barley grown on its own land.

The Right Know-How

Grallet Dupic says that the family’s tradition of distilling delicate eau de vie laid the groundwork for success with whisky, pointing to the stills that create both types of spirits. “They are the same alembics, but it’s not the same method,” she explains. “It’s difficult to distill eau de vie. When you can master eau de vie, why not whisky? The savoir-faire [know-how] is transmitted from generation to generation, and voilà.”

Jugé estimates that about 70 percent of France’s whisky makers similarly started off as producers of other alcohol drinks: 30 percent as distillers of non-whisky spirits, 30 percent as brewers, and 10 percent as winemakers. Even veterans of France’s perfume industry are using their savoir-faire to make whisky. Each of these specialties requires skills that can be applied to whisky production, such as fermentation, distillation, sensory evaluation, and blending.

In fact, many producers continue to make other products, distilling whisky only part of the year. At Alsace’s Meyer Distillery, which makes about 40 types of eau de vie and liqueurs, whisky is distilled during the off-season—February to August. G. Rozelieures devotes its stills to mirabelle for a few months a year, while in Cognac, the distillers of Brenne, Bastille, and Vicomte spend November to March making cognac.

Existing knowledge has accelerated the rise of French whisky, skipping past the learning curve that inexperienced distillers must overcome. An eau de vie distiller turning his hand to whisky is merely changing the medium from fruit to grain. A blender who has spent years working with wine can apply those same skills to casks of whisky. A brewer knows well that fermentation is where flavor is made—and exactly how to create that flavor long before the spirit runs off the still. Thus, despite the fact that most French whiskies are less than 10 years old, their high quality comes from centuries of tradition.

a distiller observes the pot stills at Warenghem Distillery in Brittany, France, where Armorik single malt whisky is made

The original French whisky distillery, Warenghem in Brittany is stepping up production of its Armorik single malt.

Green Light

Although it punches above its weight, most of France’s limited whisky production never leaves the country. “The market here is huge,” Jugé says, pointing out that French drinkers quaff more whisky annually than champagne or cognac. He sees huge promise for French whisky, noting that the country’s production has doubled every year since its inception. But French whisky producers face challenges that are familiar to American craft distillers: a capital-intensive business model, lack of small-scale maltings for locally grown grain, and the need for improved regulation and product definitions. In 2018 France is expected to produce a record amount of whisky, about 20,000 hectoliters—roughly equivalent to the output of Auchentoshan Distillery in Scotland.

In addition, Jugé warns of spurious brands that purchase whisky made elsewhere and proof or bottle it in France, which allows them to use the “Product of France” label. “If it’s not really French, it’s a problem for the whole business,” he says. These brands sell for less than their competitors that are fully made in France, undercutting both profits and the country’s reputation for quality. France’s government takes similar violations in the wine business very seriously; people who fraudulently bottle imported wine as French—and retailers who sell it—can face fines and even jail time. Once the definition of French whisky is formalized, Jugé expects similar outcomes for imposter brands and unscrupulous retailers that don’t change their practices.

Despite the challenges, real and potential, the future looks bright for whisky makers across France. Glann ar Mor, Warenghem, Domaine des Hautes Glaces, and others are ramping up production; G. Rozelieures already distills more spirit annually than it sells, in anticipation of future demand. Vicomte plans to shift its production from a cognac producer’s facility to its own purpose-built whisky distillery, and there are several large cognac distilleries in the process of adding whisky operations. In addition, more French distillers are preparing to export to the U.S., including Miclo and Castan.

These whiskies are attracting global attention: many distilleries have added tourist-focused attractions like tasting rooms, visitor centers, or—in the case of Meyer in Alsace—a museum devoted to the history and craft of distillation. The stage is set for French whisky to make its mark. “The historic whiskies [from Scotland, et al.] are getting younger and getting really expensive right now,” Jugé says. “Exact opposite for French whisky—they are getting older [and are] not expensive compared to Japanese, scotch, bourbon, or Irish whiskey. We are very confident: all the lights are green.”

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